Many years ago I worked for a small finance company that purchased loans from automobile dealerships. We had our niche and it was a very profitable business.
I enjoyed the company and quickly gained the confidence of my manager. He loved that I could turn down a loan that every other finance company had approved without upsetting the dealer personnel. I was unflappable, always making the best of things and was also having a lot of fun.
One day my boss asked me if I could take his place at a lunch with our best dealer customer. A free lunch with a customer I only knew over the phone. Count me in!
I hopped in my car and headed for the dealership to pick up our customer, all the way looking forward to a good time. As I exited the freeway, a car coming down the access road did not yield. I did not see the car and we barely escaped a collision. Unfortunately, as I saw him through my rear view window slamming on the brakes, I saw his super-sized soft drink flying through the air, splashing all over his dash.
As fate would have it the light we were approaching was turning yellow and soon he pulled up to the left of my car and down came his passenger-side window. I hesitated for a moment then rolled down my window as well. As expected the first couple of sentences contained a slew of curse words. I calmly resisted the urge to explain to him that the traffic on the access road is supposed to yield to the traffic exiting the freeway and simply said, “Sorry didn’t see you”. He made a few other remarks and I mentioned I had a towel in the trunk that he was welcome to use and keep. He declined. As I was rolling up my window, I wished him a better day. He took a left at the light and I headed straight.
End of story? Not exactly.
I walked up to the receptionist desk at the dealership and asked for our customer, Paul. The receptionist said he had stepped out for a minute and would be right back. I made a little small talk and mentioned that they had an unusual location – I had to go a mile past the dealership then make a u-turn to get back to their lot. She told me I could have taken a left at the light prior to the u-turn and they had a side entrance. Hmmm…
I searched my memory bank and tried to remember what kind of car the driver from the frontage road incident was driving. Yes, a Mercedes, that was it. As it happened I was at a Mercedes dealership.
I mentioned to the receptionist that I had never met Paul and asked what he looked like. “Beard, stocky, red hair”, she said.
Suddenly channeling “Scooby Doo” I blurted out loud, “rut row”
Seconds later I was eye to eye with Paul. He had on a clean shirt, damp pants and, believe it or not, a smile. He shook my hand so hard tears almost came to my eyes. I then summed up the courage to ask him if he knew the exiting freeway traffic had the right-of-way. He howled with laughter.
We went on to have a great lunch, business immediately doubled from his dealership and we had regular lunches for the next couple of years.
Although these events happened many years ago, I still think of that situation and how differently it would have been if I had reacted differently. I could have cussed at Paul after he cussed at me, it could have escalated into what is now known as a “road rage” incident, but instead (in a strange way) the incident strengthened our business relationship and started a friendship.
The story was particularly top of mind recently as I met with a GM of, ironically, a Mercedes dealership. He took a phone call during our meeting from an outraged woman who had just seen one of his employee’s cars (she saw the dealer license plate) speeding through a school zone. She told him she would never buy a car from his dealership and would tell all of her friends the same. The GM reacted brilliantly, telling the woman that he had children himself and was just as appalled as she was by this behavior. He invited the woman to the dealership, offering a small budget to advertise about school zone safety. She accepted and I am sure he won over a potential customer and a great reference.
Here’s a question: How many “opportunities” do you or your employees have each day to make an “un-sale”? “Opportunities” to upset a potential customer (or someone who can influence a potential customer) in a situation that may be unrelated to your actual business or the value of your product or service?
People buy from people they know, like and trust. You and your employees represent your business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
I often think of what would have happened to my career if I had reacted angrily to Paul, lost his business and then had to go back to my boss and explain how I had lost our best customer at the lunch meeting he entrusted me to attend.
Thankfully, I’ll never know.